Mandolin players and fans know there’s nothing like a fiddle tune or a good folk song. Listening to the musical style of the mandolin doesn’t have to be for country and bluegrass fans. Indie artists have long been influenced by bluegrass and the mighty mandolin. Some of the best indie music out there features the sounds of the mandolin. So, for now, let’s have the guitar take the backseat while we take a look at some of the best mandolin songs.
We’ll take a look at the instrument in general, and we’ll also look at some of the influences of indie folk and indie pop by checking out some classic rock and country tunes as well.
To uncover the best mandolin songs, let’s talk super quickly about the history of the mandolin in music before we move on to some of the best songs featuring mandolin.
History of mandolin in indie and folk music
Like a lot of instruments and genres, the mandolin owes its popularity to folk musicians. The history of mandolin in indie music begins with folk.
Mandolin as we know it came to the United States with the wave of immigrants in the mid-1800s, and the mandolin has since become iconic in the music of working-class people. Bluegrass wouldn’t be what it is without mandolin players. There’s a lot of overlap between bluegrass, folk, and indie music today.
Many indie artists are drawn to the acoustic sound and the folk style of the mandolin. It’s a popular choice in modern indie music in part because it takes us back to an earlier time, a simpler time before algorithms picked what goes on the radio.
Of course, we can’t simply give it up to the genres. Artists are the ones who brought the mandolin to life through bluegrass and folk. While much of mandolin music these days brings us back to the music of the southern United States, festivals like Bonnaroo (also from the south) remind us that it’s all connected anyway.
Famous mandolin players
Musicians make the genre, and bluegrass mandolin players have a great history.
Bill Monroe is credited with the invention of bluegrass and named the genre for the grass in his home of Kentucky. Ironically, though, people tend to lump bluegrass and country together. However, the Nashville sound threatened Monroe and bluegrass’ popularity and commercial viability for a time.
The folk revival in the 1960s brought bluegrass back thanks to young audiences growing tired of commercial music. If that sounds familiar, it should. Most real music lovers can only take commercialism for so long.
David Grisman is another powerful name in the world of mandolin playing. He learned the style of Bill Monroe and played with big names like Jerry Garcia. Grisman popularized his own unique sound, known as “Dawg style”, and after being dropped by his label for not selling enough records, Grisman went on to found Acoustic Disc so he could continue making music.
Again, that should sound familiar. It’s only natural that indie pop and indie folk music fans would appreciate a little bluegrass, and indie artists should play the mandolin. They have a lot in common. And like Grisman, it’s important to them to create their own sound and make their mark.
The Carter Family
We can’t talk about folk music or Americana without touching on The Carter Family. Though they aren’t a big name in mandolin, indie fans should be aware of this influential group.
One of the most iconic bands that you may haven’t even heard of, The Carter Family, gets the credit for preserving many classic American folk songs and Appalachian music that had previously only existed off-recording. Some of our favorite songs and culturally important songs owe their lives to The Carter Family.
Do yourselves a favor and give “Wildwood Flower” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” a listen – the original, not one of the many covers. You’ll love learning this music for mandolin, too, since the sound is great on any stringed instrument, and it’ll give you an appreciation for old folk tunes.
One more artist we need to mention is Chris Thile. He’s the modern standard to which all mandolin players aspire, check him out in this Tiny Desk Concert by NPR music.
There are so many more amazing mandolin artists, but if we named them all, we’d have to write a book. Let’s move on and dig into some really good tunes.
Best classic songs featuring mandolin
Here’s our list of the best classic songs featuring mandolin. Let us know in the comments if you know any more!
Going to California – Led Zeppelin
Not your typical Led Zeppelin, this deserves to be one of their more popular songs. Lead vocalist Robert Plant’s voice lends itself well to this toned-down style.
The Battle of Evermore – Led Zeppelin
A Celtic folklore ballad really lets the mandolin show its true ability to tell a story. It’s a great song to learn if you want to lean into the fantasy aspect of the genre, and guitar player Jimmy Page plays his mandolin well.
Norwegian Wood – The Beatles
The Beatles are always a classic, and this is a great tune to learn if you want to play a folk duet. The melody has a bright, driving quality that you’ll love.
Maggie May – Rod Stewart
Another awesome, classic mandolin song, this tune has a few different sections that truly show off the mandolin’s range. We also like how the mandolin is incorporated right into a true rock sound and gets a great feature at the end.
Love in Vain – The Rolling Stones
This is a beautiful song that has a slow, easy pace. A relaxed, two-step feel that really lets the twangy mandolin picking shine.
Best Classic Songs to cover on mandolin
Here are a few non-mandolin songs that would make a great cover, if you want to try at home.
- Can’t Help Falling in Love (With You) – Elvis Presley
- Buffalo Gals (Lubly Fan) – John Hodges
- Up on Cripple Creek – The Band
- Mr. Bojangles – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Best mandolin indie pop and indie rock songs
These are our picks for some of the best mandolin indie songs. Let us know what we missed in the comments.
I Will Dare – The Replacements
As indie fans, The Replacements are in our hearts. Pitchfork bills them as the missing link between R.E.M. and Nirvana, and we think that pretty much sums it up. “I Will Dare” does a great job featuring Paul Westerberg on the mandolin.
Little Ghost – The White Stripes
Jack White trades his guitar for a mandolin in this song, and the bluegrass influence is clear. The lyrics in the song, too, follow a folk format. Still, they’ve put their own unique spin on it.
Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want – The Smiths
Perhaps one of the most iconic indie bands, we love what The Smiths do with the mandolin in this song. It’s a departure from the bluegrass sound, and it’s amazing in its own right. British bands like The Smiths have a great history of folk influence.
Cross the Road, Molina – Songs: Ohia
Songs: Ohia is here to slow things back down with this plodding, mournful mandolin song. The lyrics are simple and jam-packed with symbolism. This is a unique song on our list because no one else makes the mandolin sound quite like this.
Be My Downfall – Del Amitri
Another mournful mandolin tune, this song takes a slow pace but really lets the brightness of the mandolin shine exposed over the lyrics of the introduction.
Rose Tattoo – Dropkick Murphys
Who can resist a little Dropkick Murphys? This song is basically the perfect formula for good times and a rowdy crowd, and the mandolin is truly excellent, too. It’s one of their greatest hits, so don’t miss this one.
Love Like This – Kodaline
Another Irish band with a great, modern sound, we love how mandolin and harmonica come together in this one. The driving of the drums keeps things more contemporary than some other fast-paced mandolin songs.
Dirty Old Town – The Pogues
With a definite old-western feel, The Pogues give us an almost Marty Robbins feel in the introduction before coming in with a slow, jaunty mandolin two-step. The lyrics were originally written in 1949 by Ewan McColl and popularized by the Dubliners.
Lucky Ball & Chain – TMBG
Back to the upbeat mandolin songs, this one truly approaches what we think of as the rock side of indie pop. The mandolin adds a light, crisp flavor overtop of the other sounds on the track.
Ho Hey – The Lumineers
More than one member of The Lumineers knows how to play a mean mandolin, and “Ho Hey” was a radio staple back in 2012. The band knows a few versatile instruments you don’t hear often, and their more modern music is definitely a twist on the old mandolin stand-bys.
Losing My Religion – REM
Peter buck is one of the kings of indie, and REM nearly never misses. This famous song blends mandolin and acoustic guitar for an all-time winner. It’s a really great hit song, and if somehow you haven’t heard it, definitely check it out.
Best country songs featuring mandolin
Country music has been a huge influence on the indie folk wave that came through in the 90s and early 2000s. From the back woods aesthetic and DIY sound to the lyrical impact of the songwriting, indie folk embraced country music…real hard. The mandolin was a big part of that embrace.
If you’re looking for great country songs on the mandolin, you can’t go wrong with any of these picks.
I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow – Soggy Bottom Boys (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
With that essential twang you love, this song is an excellent way to showcase a classic mandolin riff. Even if it is technically a movie song, it’s got that indie folk vibe that’s just really wanting to have a bit of fun.
Friend of the Devil – The Grateful Dead
Bruce Hornsby and The Grateful Dead bring an awesome twist to mandolin playing with this song. We love how the instruments on this track all come together.
Copperhead Road – Steve Earle
A country song that brings us back to that classic, folk sound, you’ll love Steve Earle’s vocals combined with the iconic mandolin.
Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
Originally recorded and endlessly copied, “Wagon Wheel” covers on mandolin are especially great. Try it out on your mandolin and let us know what you think. The song’s easy to learn and always a hit to play.
Gentle on My Mind – The Band Perry
Neil Perry brings mandolin to many songs for The Band Perry, who’ve won a few grammy awards for their talent in the early 2010s. We particularly like this one for its easy beat and how well they perform the lyrics, originally written by John Hartford in 1966.
Country music to cover on mandolin
Here are a few more awesome country songs you should cover on your mandolin if you’re a country mandolin fan!
- Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver
- Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
- Jolene – Dolly Parton
- Salt Creek – Doc Watson and Tony Rice
If you’re going to attempt that last one, know that Doc Watson and Tony Rice are both bluegrass legends. It’s a beautiful song and impossibly quick, traditionally bluegrass. Here’s another folk song by Doc – Shady Grove.
Best mandolin songs – final thoughts
These are our picks for the best mandolin songs out there. Indie music and mandolin fans have a lot to love in the bluegrass genre, but you can still hear that telltale twang in more contemporary indie pop and indie folk, too.
Let us know if we missed your favorite mandolin song in the comments! Tell us what you love about the mandolin, and let us know where to look for more.
2 thoughts on “Best Mandolin Songs: From Bluegrass to Indie Folk and Rock”
I think John Hartford wrote gentle on my mind in 1966 rather than 1921
Good catch! And thanks for letting us know about the typo. It’s been fixed.